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Taliban control now-quiet Kabul airport after U.S. troops withdraw

The last U.S. flight out of Kabul took off a minute before midnight local time Monday, opening a new and uncertain chapter for Afghanistan.

Fireworks and gunfire marked the last U.S. flights to leave Afghanistan just before midnight as the Taliban celebrated the withdrawal 20 years after they were toppled by American forces.

Video showed a plane taking flight over Kabul, the capital, as white and gold fireworks lit up the sky, accompanied by the sound of rapid gunfire and the occasional barking dog.

The last U.S. flight out of Kabul took off a minute before midnight local time Monday (3:29 pm ET), capping a bloody and chaotic end to America’s longest war and opening a new and uncertain chapter for Afghanistan.

The Taliban, who are still forming their government and naming ministers, said Afghanistan was declaring its "independence," according to their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

Taliban Badri special force fighters arrive at the airport in Kabul on Tuesday, after the U.S. pulled all its troops out of the country.Wakil Koshar / AFP - Getty Images

In the next hours, the Taliban entered the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to find abandoned military equipment left inoperable by the United States. Taliban leaders, flanked by the insurgents’ elite Badri unit, surveyed the airport.

They found fighter jets, helicopters and cars all gutted. Litter was strewn across the ground around military aircraft riddled with visible holes or stripped back to their inner workings.

The Pentagon has said it made weapons and military equipment inoperable before they left, but didn’t destroy the airport so the Taliban-run government can use it. The U.S. hopes it will be a way out for Americans and at-risk Afghans who want to leave, but it's unclear how long it will take the group to get the airport back up and running.

More than 120,000 people were safely flown out of Afghanistan during the chaotic 18-day evacuation operation in Kabul, including around 6,000 Americans, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday. Fewer than 200 Americans who wanted to leave are still in the country, he added.

Anas Haqqani, a Taliban leader and the second-in-command of the Haqqani Network, considered to be the most formidable of the Taliban’s fighting forces, said Tuesday the group had finally achieved what they had struggled for 20 years.

“What we achieved today is the result of the blood of thousands of mujahedeen, loyalty, patience and tolerating the difficulties,” he told NBC News from Kabul airport. Mujahedeen are holy warriors believed to be engaged in Islamic jihad.

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Haqqani sought to outline the personal toll the war had on militants like himself, saying that his family had lost 20 members in the past two decades, one for every year of their war with America. Four of his brothers had died, he said. Afghanistan could not tolerate more war, he added.

That will be easier said than done. The challenges now facing the new rulers of this country of 38 million people are formidable. For two decades, Afghanistan has survived on billions of dollars in foreign aid, money that is now in question as the international community weighs how to deal with the new Islamic order in Afghanistan.

Afghans line up as they wait for the banks to open and operate at a commercial area in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday. Hoshang Hashimi / AFP - Getty Images

Beyond the airport, photos showed Afghans lined up outside banks in the capital waiting for them to reopen. Civil servants across the country told The Associated Press that they haven’t received their salary in months. Meanwhile, thousands of people who fled the Taliban's lightning-quick advance across Afghanistan are now living in squalid conditions.

The country is still reeling from the Taliban takeover, the swift capitulation of Afghan forces and the chaotic departure of U.S. troops. Many Afghans feel betrayed and left behind by the nation they risked their lives to help. Others are mourning their loved ones, who were killed by the very people that they hoped would help them.

The U.S. has said it is investigating reports that its drone strike against an Islamic State Khorasan group target in Kabul may have caused civilian casualties. The strike was launched in retaliation after the ISIS-K extremist group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport last week that killed 13 U.S. military personnel and more than 100 Afghans.

The weeks and months ahead will be crucial for this war-weary country that is already desperately poor. The Taliban have yet to formally declare their government or give more detail on how they will run Afghanistan, beyond vague assertions of doing so in accordance with Shariah, or Islamic law.

The rights of women and minorities, who faced oppression under the Taliban's earlier rule, still hang in the balance.

CORRECTION (Aug. 31, 2021, 9.40 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the Taliban's spokesman. He is Zabihullah Mujahid, not Zabiullah.

The Associated Press and Richard Engel contributed.